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Something is Going On: Speculation on Clipper Dysfunction

It started with Bill Simmons, and then TMZ picked up his lead today. What's going on with the Clippers?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The way that Bill Simmons first half-presented the news was annoying, with a familiar "it's the Clippers" ring to it, and this made us skeptical.

But now I don't doubt that something is up.  Simmons responded with "now we're getting warmer," and linked to the TMZ article.  And then his follow up said that a number of longtime staffers have "left under the new Prez--10."  By Prez he means Zucker, we have to assume.  Doc and Zucker are both presidents, one of basketball and one of business ops.

So what's going on?  Taking the TMZ report with a big grain of salt, it might be that the crux is that while Zucker was successful working in NASCAR, business operations in the NBA might be very different, and the NBA functions more as an elite social club, where ex-players and lifers aren't exactly welcoming to newbies--you have to earn respect and credibility over time, nobody needs to shake things up unnecessarily, and change comes slowly.

Obviously there were some gaping flaws and big things that needed to be changed from the Sterling regime.  But it's hard, from a fan's perspective, to say exactly what those things might have been.

It's worth remembering that, yes, DTS was cretinous and the best thing that ever happened to the Clippers is the fact that he's gone, better even than drafting Griffin or the Chris Paul trade.  But it's also true that while the previous president, Andy Roeser, was an enabler of sorts to DTS, he also managed to separate basketball from DTS' direct involvement, and he managed to build a team with Griffin, Paul, DJ, Redick and others, with Doc Rivers as the coach.

Roeser wasn't going to be around after Ballmer bought the team.  Doc Rivers became President of Basketball Operations, a title that put him in a very select group of coach-presidents.  He deserved it after he steered the Clippers through the DTS debacle, and because of his pedigree and experience.

The trick, however, was replacing Roeser.  Rivers was a placeholder as the Clips #1 guy under Ballmer, and they still needed a President of Business Ops.  And this is the point where it gets a little tricky, we have to assume.   If Roeser was #1 and Rivers was #2, and then Roeser leaves, how does the hierarchy work?

It appears that Ballmer did the search himself, that there were no obvious low-hanging-fruit candidates, and nobody that Doc Rivers was passionate about.  Or perhaps Doc wasn't consulted, which would have been a mistake--but I doubt that happened.  He probably had a lot on his plate, didn't have anybody that struck him as a strong candidate, and maybe he wanted Ballmer to make the decision, using his business acumen and experience.  Who knows.  Maybe Ballmer was taking charge from the very beginning, and he had a process he wanted to go through in making the hire. Ballmer came up with Zucker, who seems like a cool choice, a progressive hire of a successful and accomplished woman.  Also, she's the kind of person DTS probably wouldn't have hired in a million years.  But again, who knows.

The part that got lost was bringing in somebody up near the top of the hierarchy who has no experience in NBA culture.  It creates a wild card.  A hire like Zucker could work out and be great, or it could turn out to be a person who steps on other people's toes.  And if there's one person who represents the elite NBA social club of ex-players and lifers, a group with extremely sensitive toes, it's Doc Rivers.

So now we should probably look at the exact timing of the Zucker hire, and others can tell us what they know about the personnel changes during her tenure, the ones that Simmons mentions.  What we do know is that Zucker was hired right at the start of the season, and her profile was pretty low as it played out.  In fact, the first news stories that might have had anything to do with Zucker's purview seem to have come after the (horrible) end of the season, when the Clips got around to rolling out their new logo and branding.

And that didn't go very well.  The logo itself was criticized pretty thoroughly, but it's a little hard to be sure about these things.  At any rate, it seemed like a Ballmer and Clippers possible problem, and certainly didn't stick to Zucker in any meaningful way (or Rivers).  And with a shocking defeat in the playoffs, and free agency coming up, the logo launch was a relatively minor issue--but its lack of success, its failure to provide a lift, and even perhaps challenges with its timing, could have created additional stress.

It's always something with the Clippers, and we haven't gotten to DeAndregeddon yet.  But of course this has to be where things went off the rails, if that is in fact the case.  We can remember how we reacted as fans, how we were flummoxed and depressed and hopeless on the morning of July 3rd and through the holiday weekend and into the next week.  We know now what so many of the actors were doing throughout that dramatic episode:  DJ and Blake and CP3; Cuban and Parsons and Fegan; Ballmer and Paul Pierce and J.J. Redick.  But we don't know anything about Gillian Zucker.

We don't know how she and Ballmer responded to the failed first meeting that the Clippers had with DeAndre, where they came up short.  We don't know if she was even in the room during the aftermath or the preliminaries, if the Clippers presentation was discussed with her.  But if there was a place where tensions might have risen, and lines might have been crossed, that's the place to start looking:  those were very tough times for the corporate institution of the Clippers.

We do know that Doc Rivers stayed resolute at the tiller and steered his way through some extremely treacherous waters.  It ended well.  And if there was any second-guessing or recriminations, or even just panic and distraction, even a side-eye, anything at all, it would not have been a good thing.  NBA basketball business is NBA basketball business, ain't nothing else like it, and the guys who have been doing it their entire adult lives are good at it.  They know things we will never know.

Lastly--and this prompted the original Simmons tweets--there was the Lexus thing.  It was a significant NBA fine, and it presumably showed a genuine misunderstanding about NBA operations.  But the Clippers had their man, Ballmer can pay the fine, and it's time to move on and start thinking about training camp.  Zucker's name never came up, not that I saw, but now it's pretty easy to see her fingerprints all over it.  And it also seems to show that she was in fact very much a part of prepping the DJ package, and she probably had plenty to say when it went awry.  We don't really have any idea what those conversations could have been like, except that they must have been intense.  And, it seems, that's what Simmons was talking about.  At any rate, the Lexus thing was always a big story, it was no small fine, and we didn't really understand it, but now the real journalists can put the pieces together and start to figure it out.

It's kind of funny I suppose that Simmons didn't want to use Zucker's name, that he left it for somebody else to do.  It's a sensitive situation because she's a progressive hire in that position.  Simmons already has enough history with Doc Rivers, and Rivers' role in all of this, along with Ballmer's, is far from clear.  Rivers is a tough guy, he's knowledgable and smart and crafty as well, and not anybody you want to get into a major beef with.  But beef, apparently, there is, and TMZ is on it, performing its high-minded civic function and connecting a few dots that we all managed to miss.  New media meets old school NBA back-room business.  People will be inclined to say "it's the Clippers," and Simmons originally rang that bell with his tweets.  And it's true that it is the Clippers, and this is how it goes.  The larger truth is that none of this will have any effect on the basketball team or any of the players, I don't think.  But the game is afoot now, it appears, just a little amuse bouche Septembre drama while KA is in Mongolia as the players make their way towards training camp in just a few short weeks. C'est la vie.